Next morning’s plan was towards the fulfilment of a childhood wish. A ride on the eponymous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Or to put it simply, a glorious Toy Train ride. Come to Darjeeling and not take a joyride on the beloved steam engine? Simply unimaginable!
Half-past ten was the scheduled departure of the toy train from the Darjeeling station, so there was ample time for a leisurely breakfast. Choosing to place to eat in Darjeeling is another exciting activity because you are literally spoilt for choice! My pick for the day was Keventer’s, one of Darjeeling’s most celebrated culinary institutions. Its rooftop eating space with an uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountains has found its place many times on celluloid too. A filling meal of sandwiches, chicken sausage and hot chocolate later, I headed straight for the Darjeeling station.
Since I had reached well on time, I had the wonderful chance of seeing the railway workers prepare for the ride, attaching/detaching the engine, compartments and the like. I clicked pictures galore and waited for the departing whistle. Once inside the compartment, I found myself to have been luckily allocated a window seat. As the toy train gently chugged along; it passed by houses and markets, with rosy-cheeked kids excitedly waving at the train, then suddenly the tracks veered onto tree-lined stretches bordered by the mountains, it was fast-changing scenery. With the advantage of my window-side seat, I was able to capture myriad moments of this captivating and unique journey.
This particular joyride is a customized round-trip for tourists, from Darjeeling to Ghum and then back. En route to Ghum which is India’s highest railway station, the train passes by the famous Batasia Loop (a bend in the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), where it makes a short halt for tourists to enjoy the breathtaking scenery from the vantage point high up in the mountains. Finally at Ghum, there’s a half-hour break to visit the Himalayan Railway Museum, before the train embarks on its return journey.
The magnificent Batasia Loop is a sight to behold! The name itself has such a quaint, romantic appeal and the place is incomparable in its own right, offering a spectacular, panoramic view of the surrounding snow-covered peaks. Commissioned in 1919, it is one of the most ingenious and brilliant pieces of engineering that enables the toy train negotiate an extremely steep gradient. The railway track circles around a beautiful garden, which provided for a great photo-op during the short pause that the toy train made here. It was picture perfect. The puffs of smoke from the steam engine against a backdrop of white clouds and blue skies, surrounding with a profusion of blooming blossoms seemed to me straight out of the pages of a childhood story book! At the centre of the garden, is the War Memorial commemorating the heroic Gurkha soldiers who have down laid their lives for the nation in numerous wars and conflicts. It was a humbling experience to stand in solemnness before the memorial – a cenotaph and a statue of the Unknown Soldier – and reflect upon their unparalleled bravery and the final sacrifice.
From Batasia Loop, the toy train reached the sleepy town of Ghum. Just across the tiny railway platform is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway museum. It showcases the engineering marvel that is this railway which is also bears the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has been commemorated by the UNESCO as “The first and still the most outstanding example of a hill passenger railway.” All around the museum are invaluable memorabilia – photographs, citations, plaques, paintings, models, delineating the unique history of this remarkable engineering feat of the 19th century to construct “an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty”.
With the toy train ride over by early afternoon, I decided to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park after lunch. For lunch, I returned to the inimitable Glenary’s. After a delicious meal of Shepherd’s Pie at this vintage restaurant resplendent in its old-world charm and glamour, I was set for the next half of what already had been a wonderful day.
The HMI is that sort of a place which will give you goose bumps. In the courtyard stands the statue of a victorious Tenzing Norgay, which was unveiled by Sir Edmund Hillary, his partner in that history-making epic quest. Tenzing Norgay also served as the Director of Field Training at the HIMI till his death in 1986. The HMI museum is like none other. Within its walls are documented years of mountaineering expeditions, tales of unparalleled glory and tragic loss. Photographs, maps, actual equipment used by mountaineers during their climb, geographical models, newspaper clips and other displays all bear silent testimony to the unquenchable adventurous spirit of man who has unfailingly headed into the great unknown to answer its irresistible clarion call. There’s so much of history associated with this place that it was a truly humbling experience for me to stand there and witness the depth and expanse of man’s indomitable willpower.
Adjacent to the HMI is the Darjeeling Zoo, India’s largest high-altitude zoo. It was heartening to see the animals in a relatively freer environment as compared to the city zoos. Though there were cages for the leopards and tigers, they were comparatively more spacious. Many other species of animals were housed in open enclosures with boundary walls sans wired cages. The cooler climes also contributed to the general good health of the animals. I saw the Black Bear, the Goral, the Thar, the Blue Sheep, the Himalayan Wolf, and the famous Clouded Leopard among others.
From the zoo, it was a long but pleasant walk back to the Mall, along uphill, downhill tree-laden paths. En route I passed by another of Darjeeling’s landmarks, the Raj Bhavan or the Governor’s House. It is the summer residence of the Governor of West Bengal, a grand, luxurious estate stretching over a huge area, a throwback to the colonial era.
The next day would be my third and last day at Darjeeling before I headed out to another picturesque hill town called Kalimpong about 50 km away. My initial plan was to tick off another item from my bucket list – watch the sunrise from Tiger Hill, famous for its breathtaking view of Mt. Everest, Mt. Kanchenjunga, Makalu and other Himalayan peaks. However, unfortunately, the weather suddenly turned for worse after my zoo visit, culminating in overcast skies and a constant drizzle late into the evening. As the rain showed of signs of relenting, it seemed fruitless to make the grinding uphill trip to Tiger Hill at the crack of dawn.
So I tried my best to contain my disappointment at missing such a unique opportunity and focussed on making a different plan instead. I settled on visiting another Darjeeling attraction, something that was inextricably entwined with the geographic and socio-economic aspects of this region. I decided to visit a tea garden. The local cabbie, the waiter at the restaurant and the hotel manager all were unanimous in their recommendation of the Happy Valley tea estate, the oldest in Darjeeling.
Also, read the Part I of this blog!
Bidisha Das Gupta
Bookworm. Cinephile. Travel-addict. Reluctant IT Consultant. Forever dreaming of exploring new places & people; and making memories all over the world. A song that echoes my fondest desires:
“Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world,
She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”
Read more of Bidisha’s writing at her blog!